Whatever Happened to Gewurztraminer?

Date: 26 November, 2021 / Author: Andrew James

Wine tasting with Francis Burn, the winemaker at Domaine Ernest Burn

Ah, the complexities of Gewurztraminer! With the rise in popularity of light, dry, food-friendly wines, not many people seem to drink it these days. To find out more about this iconic grape and what we’ve all been missing out on, I visited six producers of Gewurztraminer with Grand Cru plots in the villages surrounding Colmar in southern Alsace. Each successive tasting convinced me that, when approached with patience and understanding by both winemakers and consumers, Gewurztraminer can be very special.

Known for its distinctive lychee aroma, Alsatian Gewurztraminer has been a victim of its own success. The enthusiastic planting of over-productive, aromatic clones in the 1960s turned a complex wine into a treacly sweet cliché. Uninspired versions explode with tropical aromas but are otherwise heavy, cloying and disappointing. To make a good Gewurztraminer you need a favourable plot – preferably a limestone slope – and time. It is one of the last grapes to be harvested and during fermentation the yeast often tires of converting all those sugars to alcohol. The longer the fermentation continues, the greater the risk of bacterial infection. After bottling, if the residual sugar level is high, it can take years for balance to be attained. In consideration of the global trend towards dry whites ready to be enjoyed in their youth and the importance of the export market, it is not surprising that many growers have shifted their emphasis to Riesling, the Pinots, and the production of Crémant d’Alsace.

‘Before, when two vignerons met,’ Francis Burn reflected, ‘they would taste each other’s Gewurztraminer, but now they taste each other’s sparkling wine, so it is not the same philosophy.’ Domaine Ernest Burn is located on a cobblestone road in the picturesque medieval town of Gueberschwihr, 12 kilometres south of Colmar. Twenty-five percent of the region’s wine production is now devoted to Crémant d’Alsace, made by the traditional champagne method, but for 40 years Francis has refused to try his hand at this wine because he believes Alsace should do things differently…

‘Alsace is not the country for making sparkling wine. The climate is too dry and too good. [For sparkling wine] they pick the grapes before they are ripe. In Champagne you can have the grapes ripe at 11 degrees with less acidity. But here at 11 degrees the acidity is very high because the grape is not ripe. It is the same with Gewurztraminer. For the last two or three years they have said you have to make dry Gewurztraminer. But it’s not good, because at 12 degrees the grape is not ripe. The aromas are not finished. We pick the grapes when all the people are finished. I have picked the grapes like that for 40 years. When the leaves are yellow and the vegetative cycle is finished.’

There are 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace, most of them stretched out on sun-drenched slopes in the rain shadow of the Vosges Mountains. Domaine Ernest Burn has a five-hectare enclosure called Clos du Saint-Imer in the Goldert Grand Cru and his opulent expressions of Gewurztraminer are aged in oak. After a barrel tasting of the 2020, I tried the previous three vintages, reveling in sensations of cashew nuts, clove, Muscat, pear and mango. Then, Francis went back to the cellar to fetch three noteworthy older vintages, and the real fun began. The 2010 still has a youthful nose of apricot and Mirabelle plum, while the 2005 is in its balanced prime, blending honey and heather, a syrupy palate and a long, dry finish. The 1989 is 90% botrytized, which helps to explain the caramel and maple syrup notes in a wine that should feel heavy but doesn’t. After 20 or 30 years, most other varietals taste tired in the absence of primary fruit, but Gewurztraminer is just getting warmed up, and the complexity in the mouth is something to behold.

Paradoxically, it is complexity that has hurt Gewurztraminer’s popularity, as many wine drinkers struggle to understand it. ‘Gewurztraminer is a transvestite,’ declares Olivier Humbrecht. ‘It’s a red wine disguised as a white wine. It has all the advantages and defects of a red wine. The pH is very low and what makes Gewurztraminer age well are the tannins, just like in a red wine.’ In the 1990s Domaine Zind-Humbrecht uprooted all of its unsatisfactory clones planted in the 1970s, replacing them with pre-war massal selection vines. This involves taking healthy cuttings from old vines to create a new vineyard. Though production has dropped by almost 50 percent, Olivier sees and tastes the difference: ‘The older vines are a beautiful orange, reddish-gold. The new clones are like dark purple. They are ugly. The berries are softer. And the taste is much more pharmaceutical.’

Located west of Colmar in Turckheim, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht has an impressively varied Gewurztraminer lineup and you don’t have to go to its Grand Cru range to experience terrific wine. Roche Roulée comes from vineyards on Turckheim’s valley floor where pebbles, sand and granite contribute floral aromas, notably geranium. On the other hand, Roche Calcaire is made from grapes grown on a clay-limestone hillside and the nose leans towards spice and exotic fruit. The wines from the Clos Windsbuhl vineyard, located 15 kilometres south of Colmar, at an elevation of 350 metres, are of especial interest. The 2019 is still in its infancy. With 50 grams of residual sugar, it will need more time, though the aromas of pear, melon and gingerbread are enticing. The 2007 is ready now. To use the winemaker’s own term, this late harvest wine has a rôti (roasted) note, with aromas and flavours ranging from green pepper to thyme to honey, and just enough acidity to counterbalance the sweetness. In the 1990 everything is working. The aromas alone are intoxicating: almond, ripe apricot and potpourri. Perfection has been achieved.

The cooperative Wolfberger includes the wines of Domaine Lucien Albrecht in its portfolio and I visited its offices in Eguisheim. Just eight kilometres south of Colmar, this is another beautiful town built with a medieval castle and colourful buildings with timber façades. Here grapes have to share the Alsatian sunshine with hordes of tourists. Domaine Lucien Albrecht makes a terrific Grand Cru Gewurztraminer called Spiegel. The name references the slope’s ability to ‘mirror’, or retain, sunlight, thanks to quartz deposits in the sandstone. The 2015 Spiegel is just about unified, with a profile of pear, apple and white flowers against a backdrop of pepper and clove. The 2018 late harvest Gewurztraminer is a regal wine, boasting 99 grams of residual sugar. Just imagine what will become of its quince, heather and honey notes in 10 years, once balance has been achieved. The longer this wine rests in your cellar, the better.

A short walk from Wolfberger brings you to the center of Eguisheim, where Domaine Emile Beyer has a history of winemaking dating to 1580. I tasted two Gewurztraminers from 2018 with contrasting personalities: first, the Eguisheim with 37 grams of residual sugar, and then the Grand Cru Pfersigberg (meaning peach tree hill) with double that amount. Each wine had its own aromatic profile, but the Grand Cru shows its pedigree in piercing minerality and a saline aftertaste. How will this wine taste in 10 years? The domaine’s representative, Fanny Erhard, replied: ‘Each vintage evolves in a different way. With time the sugar is very, very integrated. It’s like a green tea, with aromatic herbs. The first time I was tasting here as a sommelier I tried a Pfersigberg 2010. For me it was rosemary. It was crazy. The first time to smell that.’

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It turns out Gewurztraminer is all about the terroir and this is the raison d’être of the last two producers I visited. Just north of Colmar, Domaine Weinbach has a sprawling country home open for tastings in Kaysersberg (German for the ‘emperor’s mountain’). The domaine has been in the Faller family for the last 120 years and its wines are profoundly elegant. The Altenbourg grows on a marl and limestone hillside in Kientzheim and these vines produce a rich yet dignified incarnation of Gewurztraminer. Just above this vineyard lies the Grand Cru Fürstentum site. This wine’s quince and pear nose resembles that of the Altenbourg, but has greater mouth complexity, as tropical fruit flavours emerge. The Grand Cru Mambourg vineyard is situated on a neighbouring hill and this wine is at once spicy, floral and soothing in the finish. Eddy Leiber-Faller maintains that when Gewurztraminer is planted in an inferior terroir, it inevitably results in a wine with a caricatured profile, though this can be said for many varietals:

‘For me, petrol is bad Riesling. It’s high yields, underripe, industrial, mass production. I think a lot of journalists sold to people the idea that Riesling is petrol. To me, petrol is more the varietal, not so much the minerality in the Riesling. It’s like the rose and lychee nose in a Gewurztraminer, which you can have all around the world in any kind of terroir, with any kind of farming, or the cat pee in Sauvignon Blanc. For us, whether it is Riesling or Gewurztraminer, the grape is a vessel for the expression of the terroir. [With Riesling] when the terroir takes over the varietal you don’t get any petrol at all.’

Domaine Marcel Deiss’s Marie-Hélène Cristofaro agreed: ‘Aromatic grapes are even more aromatic when you produce high yields and when they are not totally ripe. You have a lot on the nose, but nothing in the mouth. And that’s why many industrial wines produced with these grapes are disappointing. To have such a nose, you expect the same thing on the palate, but there’s no complexity in the mouth.’

Twenty kilometres north of Colmar in Bergheim, Domaine Marcel Deiss adheres to a philosophy of vineyard management known as ‘complantation’, whereby different varietals are grown in the same field, then harvested and vinified together. It still produces a single varietal Gewurztraminer from a valley floor vineyard because it believes complantation works best on hillside plots, where the terroir is able to impose its will on the vines. The 2016 Gewurztraminer is a lovely expression of lychee, though less compelling than the 2015 Gruenspiel, a wine composed of equal thirds Riesling, all of the Pinots and Gewurztraminer. The hint of tropical fruits in the nose might be from Gewurztraminer, but it is the fleshy, acidic and profoundly mineral sensation in the mouth that is fascinating. When you experience the joy of tasting a truly complex Alsace Gewurztraminer, you can understand why Domaine Marcel Deiss sometimes uses black wine glasses: to get our minds off the aromas and focus on flavour. Though it is a shame not to see the glitter of these beautiful wines.

And how is Gewurztraminer best enjoyed? The traditional winter food pairing is foie gras. However many sommeliers consider Riesling a better partner for the saltier variety of foie gras that has become common in recent years. Strong cheeses like Roquefort, Münster and Epoisses are also good companions, though Jolene Hunter, the export manager for Wolfberger, noted that changes in dining habits have diminished the importance of this pairing: ‘I think today we don’t take as much time sitting down over food. Very few people now will have a bottle with their dessert. Twenty or thirty years ago it was much more frequent. With the digestif alcohol it is the same thing. There aren’t many cultures where people enjoy a five-hour meal today.’

If you aren’t up for foie gras and you’ve decided to forgo the cheese plate, what should you pair with Gewurztraminer? Francis Burn and Olivier Humbrecht both suggested spicy Thai chicken curry with coconut milk. Eddy Leiber-Faller offered green curry chicken with eggplant; Fanny Erhard, spicy beef tartare. I was struck by Marie-Hélène Cristofaro’s depiction of Gewurztraminer as ‘liquid gold, so concentrated, so smooth. It is something really great for a special moment to take care of you.’ Which is why Jolene Hunter gets the last words. Drink it, she advised, ‘in a slightly bigger glass, on a Sunday afternoon at about 4.00, with good friends. Just the wine by itself with nothing else.’

Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.

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